Long gone are the days of kids throwing balls in the backyard just for fun. There’s now a desire — from plenty of parents — to push kids to do better at a faster pace in one specific sport.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Sports specialization is when an athlete focuses on only one sport, usually at the exclusion of any other and often year-round. It appears to have increased overall, along with earlier onset, because select or travel leagues start as young as age 7.”

BRING BACK FREE PLAY

When kids pick up a game of basketball at a local court or a game of baseball at an overused and long-forgotten field, it’s just free play, which is disappearing from kids’ lives. Alex B. Diamond, DO, MPH, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation and associate professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says kids need free play more instead of lots of organized practice pushed by parents. While normal practice is something kids need in order to get better at a certain activity, it shouldn’t be the only activity they do.

Early sports specialization is becoming the norm and the AAP says, “When sports specialization occurs too early, detrimental effects may occur, both physically and psychologically.”

DON’T PUSH PERFECTION

Diamond says the short-term effect sports specialization has on kids at an early age is overuse while the long-term creates burnout from the sport and losing the overall physical and psychosocial benefit of just playing a sport to begin with.

“The focus early on needs to be less on a sport’s specific skill and more on strength and skills that help develop kids,” says Diamond. Kids need to sample all kinds of sports to use different muscles and learn different movement patterns.

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"External pressure is super difficult and kids sense responsibility and don’t want to let their parents down," — Alex Diamond, DO, MPH

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Research shows you don’t need to specialize in a specific sport to become an elite athlete in it, says Diamond. However, he adds specialization can be brought in between the ages of 14 - 16 if your child shows a clear interest in the sport.

Until then, limit the amount of his training. Young athletes should only endure about eight months per year of organized sports. Diamond says to allow no more than a child’s age in hours of training per week. For example, an 8-year-old should have no more than eight hours of training per week.

EMPHASIZE FUN

Ask your child if today’s practice was fun. If he says, “Yes!” then you’re good. If you get the opposite reaction, then it’s time to step back.

“The big thing we look at is the role of the parents and the expectations of the kids,” says Diamond. “The external pressure is super difficult and kids sense responsibility and don’t want to let their parents down,” he adds.

This added pressure from parents can adversely affect a child’s mental health, which Diamond says is at the forefront of what doctors are trying to address right now. Parents may unknowingly add stress, depression and other issues to their child’s overall health when they push too hard in the sporting arena.

The key takeaway is to just have fun and allow your child to experience a variety of sports. When he’s old enough to specialize — and he wants to — then by all means, have at it. Until then, get back in the yard and toss the ball with one another or call up some friends for a quick game of any sport — and change it up often.